Grandma's Tales

January 7, 2007

Grammar – 23 By the way, how do you use “by”?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 12:05 am

I know. “By’ is not the easiest of words to fix a limit on, whether you use it for space or time. But the least you can do is reduce the ambiguity when you choose to use it. Now be honest, what do you make of this sentence which appeared several times as a strap line on a prominent news channel?

Saddam Hussain buried by his two sons.  Excuse me, I was under the impression that the sons went before him. Unless, of course, he had sired a couple more when we were watching other news.

The “by” here is supposed to mean “by the side of”. But this (Saddam was sentenced to be hanged (not hung) by a jury) is also a common construction when a sentence is in the passive voice. In which case, the sentence would mean, His two sons got together and buried Saddam Hussain.
The point is this: do look at your sentence from the point of view of the reader for whom it is meant anyway. 
Yes, we do use this pesky two-lettered in various ways. Figure out the following:
[1] We’ll deliver it by 3 pm tomorrow.
[2] I’ll be at your place by 8 o’ clock.
In these sentences does “by” mean before? At the stroke of? Not later than? You can use it to mean any one of the three things.
I heard a customer shouting at a shopkeeper: “You said my suit would be ready by 4. It is past lunch. What do you mean it will take time?”
Shopkeeper: “Sir, I said by 4. So I have time till 4!”

“By” can be used as many parts of speech. It is also used in a few interesting idioms.
People don’t read web pages word by word.
People will forget the Nithari killings by and by.
By and large this has been a good year for Bollywood.

A lot more on this word will come by you. By the way, did you watch the movie “North by Northwest”? 


  1. I agree with the shopkeeper. Where’s the ambiguity in what he said?

    Comment by Navaneethan Santhanam — February 17, 2007 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  2. If the shopkeeper was very sure of what he was saying, he should have said, “We’ll deliver your suit at, not by, 4 pm. Thanks for reminding me of this word. Will be in my next grammar post.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — February 17, 2007 @ 9:02 am | Reply

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